Remembering Gary Marsden

“All of Computer Science is a subset of Human-Computer Interaction.” — Gary Marsden

I was deeply shocked by Gary Marsden’s unexpected passing during his prime. It is a huge loss for his family, his students, the University of Cape Town, and the broader ICT4D community. Gary and I crossed paths so many times throughout our professional lives. If I knew that ICTD 2013 would be the last time that many of us would get to see him, I would have put the conference on my travel plans. At this point, I deeply regret not being able to attend ICTD 2013 and meeting him for the last time.

It seemed like yesterday when I last met Gary, which was during the CHI 2013 conference in Paris. Gary, Melissa Densmore (whom I’m excited to learn is joining the UCT faculty now that they have lost Gary) and I were sitting at a cafe at the conference convention center. Having recently recruited Gary to the advisory board for the ACM SIGCHI special interest group on Human-Computer Interaction for International Development which several of us founded, Melissa and I were picking Gary’s brains on how we could take HCI4D to the next level. At the same time, Gary asked if I might be willing to step up and be a subcommittee chair for CHI 2014’s papers committee. I never fail to be amazed at the breadth and depth of his perspectives, and his generosity.

I still vividly remember my first meeting with Gary, which was when I was a PhD candidate at Berkeley. We were seated at the same table close to the door, at the first HCI4D workshop at CHI 2007 in San Jose. Gary had blazed a trail with his research in ICT4D, and was the winner of the SIGCHI Social Impact Award at CHI 2007 (which was incidentally CHI’s 25th anniversary, hence the significance). I went up to him during a break to introduce myself, and to tell him how thrilled I was that he had received this award. Gary brushed aside the compliment in his usual self-deprecating manner. I bet he could never have imagined that as one of the earliest ICT4D researcher, and his putting ICT4D on the “world map” at CHI through his award, he inspired a generation of younger researchers, including myself, who were passionate about technology for improving lives among the most disadvantaged but couldn’t quite see what the future of our field would look like. Gary’s successes (and persistence in the face of numerous failures) kept me going when what we were doing was neither mainstream, understood nor recognized at CHI.

I remember another meeting that I had with Gary two years later in 2009. It was the workshop at my alma mater Berkeley that ignited the series of ACM DEV symposiums. (At that time, I had graduated not too long ago from Berkeley and started a tenure-track professor position at Carnegie Mellon.) Gary made an insightful statement at the workshop that I continue to remember today: “All of Computer Science is a subset of Human-Computer Interaction.” This was just one of the several examples of how Gary possessed the imagination to see things in a different light, to provide a fresh perspective on the so-called conventional wisdom in and about HCI. When a student subsequently asked me if HCI is a subset of Computer Science, i.e. would it be accurate to say that only the subset of computer scientists who should focus on the human aspects of technology are the HCI folks, I shared Gary’s wisdom with him.

Gary’s wisdom will continue to live in our hearts and minds.

Posted in Human-Computer Interaction, Information and Communication Technologies for International Development (ICT4D) | Leave a comment

References on Mobile Learning

Two weeks ago at the American Association for the Advancement of Science, I spoke on mobile technologies for broadening access to education. The audience asked several thoughtful questions about the research on mobile learning. We ran out of time and I promised to post the references online (see below).

1. Evidence for technology in education

In response to a fellow panelist who remarked that there has been no evidence for the efficacy of technology in education, I pointed out that to the contrary, there have been numerous decades of work and research on educational technology. (Hey, before the panel started, we had agreed to disagree.) Just to name one example, the Sesame Street educational television series started in 1967. To date, there are more than 1,000 studies on the educational impacts of Sesame Street (Fisch and Truglio, 2001).

With more recent computing technology, Carnegie Mellon University’s Open Learning Initiative makes digital learning materials freely accessible over the Internet to anyone (Walsh, 2011). CMU faculty and staff designed these materials meticulously by applying cognitive science research on how people learn, and then carefully fine-tuned the materials through formative testing. A randomized experiment found that the treatment group outperformed the control group on a validated test instrument (Lovett, Meyer and Thille, 2010). Moreover, the treatment group learned the material, which is normally covered in a regular 15-week semester-length course (control group), within an accelerated, technology-supported 8-week course (treatment group).* In other words, technology supported the students and instructor in covering a semester’s material in half a semester. (Full disclosure: I was a professor at Carnegie Mellon University from 2009 to 2012. However, I was not involved in its Open Learning Initiative.)

Clearly, we need to go beyond simplistic questions such as “Does technology work?” and instead advance a scientific framework that helps us understand deeper issues such as: When does technology work? Which aspects of technology work? Why? How can we improve on technology to work even better?

Only by developing a science of how people learn, with and without technology, can we understand how technology facilitates improved learning outcomes, and more importantly, those factors that enable these positive outcomes (or not) to be replicated in other contexts.

2. References on Mobile Learning

I don’t view mobile learning to be dramatically different from older forms of educational technology, to the extent that the research base on older educational technologies is no longer applicable to mobile learning. That said, if someone wants to characterize mobile learning as a new paradigm, we need to ask what are those properties that distinguish mobile learning from older paradigms. Is it the portability that lends mobile devices to being integrated more deeply into existing social and educational contexts? Is it the smaller form factor? Etc.

Due to its relative infancy, the research literature on mobile learning is scattered across a number of places, some of which are relatively new. As a starting point, I recommend the Handbook of Mobile Learning (Berge and Muilenberg, 2013). In 53 chapters, this is the first handbook that attempts to compile the growing academic research out there on mobile learning, in both the developing and industrialized world. (Disclosure: I contributed the concluding chapter to this handbook.) A less recent book which surveys the academic research on mobile educational games is Klopfer (2008). Similarly, another book is Warschauer (2006), on the uses of laptops in classrooms in the United States for literacy learning.

If you are looking specifically at non-industrialized countries, besides myself, Jenny Aker, Paul Kim, John Traxler and Steve Vosloo have published on mobile learning in developing countries. The WorldReader team also releases regular reports on their e-reader pilots in low-income countries.

In addition to the above published works, here are some upcoming reports and books that I have been involved in, as an informant, external reviewer or invited contributor:

As part of its series of publications on mobile learning, UNESCO is commissioning a global report that will include detailed case studies on mobile learning for women and girls’ literacy in the developing world.

USAID has commissioned landscape reports on mobile learning for early-grade literacy and mobile learning for workforce development, authored by Dan Wagner and Linda Raftree respectively.

For something with more academic rigor, Mark Pegrum is writing a book on mobile language learning, and his book showcases initiatives in both developing and industrialized regions.

Please be on the lookout for the above upcoming publications!


Berge, Z. L., and Muilenburg, L. (2013). Handbook of mobile learning. Routledge.

Fisch, S. M., and Truglio, R. T. (Eds.) (2001). “G” is for growing: Thirty years of research on children and Sesame Street. Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Publishers.

Klopfer, E. (2008). Augmented learning: Research and design of mobile educational games. The MIT Press.

Lovett, M., Meyer, O., and Thille, C. (2010). In search of the “perfect” blend between an instructor and an online course for teaching introductory Statistics. In Proceedings of the Eighth International Conference on Teaching Statistics.

Walsh, T. (2011). Unlocking the gates: How and why leading universities are opening up access to their courses. Princeton University Press.

Warschauer, M. (2006). Laptops and Literacy: Learning in the Wireless Classroom. Teachers College Press.

* In the treatment group, students spent time outside the classroom working through digital materials and electronic quizzes related to the course. Concurrently, they attended two 50-minute classes per week, during which the instructor was guided by automatically-generated student progress reports from the digital materials and quizzes to focus those face-to-face sessions on areas where students fared more poorly on. (This combination of face-to-face instruction and technology-based learning activities in the treatment condition is widely called “blended learning.”) In contrast, students in the control group were taught using traditional approaches without the digital materials, i.e. students attended three 50-minute lectures and one 50-minute computer lab session per week for a total of 15 weeks. There was no statistical difference between the treatment and control groups in terms of the number of hours per week outside-of-class time that students spent on the same course.

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